Category: The Big Valley
Word Count: 2600
The deep resonating gong of the old grandfather clock in the study had just announced 1:00 when the family gathering of four finally departed to get some much needed rest. The young man, who was the topic of this family meeting, had excused himself over two hours earlier. A man of few words, he had stated his reasons why he had showed up at this large family dwelling just three days ago. A name. A heritage. A part of it all. He found no need to dance around any other points of discussion. He had had his say and excused himself, knowing that this tight-knit family would have much more discussion before they themselves turned in. He was an early riser and already the hour was late for getting some shut eye. He found his way up the graceful staircase to the modest room that would from now on be his. His own room. He had shaken his head in awe as he took in his new spacious surroundings.
In Strawberry, the little cabin that he had shared with his mama while he was growing up had only two rooms. A great room served as both a front room and sleeping area. The kitchen was a separate room that ran the length of the tiny cottage. Heath’s cot stayed tucked behind the old couch that had been given to them by a family, when they had moved out of the area after the mine had stopped producing. His mama used the couch as her bed some of the time, but more often than not, if her back was paining her after having worked a double shift at the Strawberry Hotel, which she did often, she’d prefer to settle on the floor on the large rug that covered the unpolished, worn hardwood beneath.
Nick’s tired body led him up the grand staircase and into his palatial bedroom. His muscles ached from another day of running his family’s rambling ranch. His head hurt from thinking about the implications of what this man, who now occupied the room just down the hall, brought to him and to his family. Nick Barkley’s body craved sleep. His mind would not hear of it.
A change had occurred tonight. An earth shattering change. The pedestal in which Nick had placed his father on had come tumbling down tonight. A man, a man showing every bit of gumption, stubbornness and yes, courage and cussedness, the same qualities that all Barkleys possessed, had come into Nick Barkley’s valley. He had come onto Nick Barkley’s ranch. He had stepped into Nick Barkley’s home.
Deep down inside of him, Nick knew this blond stranger was different. He knew it the first moment he laid eyes on him. Almost immediately, there was a battle that had started within. A battle between his heart and his mind.
His heart appealed to him to look for the good that this young cowpoke brought with him. He had experience. He had worked many jobs. He was skilled.
His mind though, his mind argued fiercely. This man was not who he claimed to be. He wasn’t just another saddle bum passing through looking for work just to tide him over. No! Nick’s mind screamed suspicion and dark thoughts crowded out the good his heart was offering. This man was a spy. A spy for the Coastal & Western. Sent by the Railroad to leech out information from the farmers and ranchers whose land the Railroad claimed belonged to them. His mind hammered at him that this boy was no more than a saddle tramp and an instrument to the Railroad for driving decent people off of their land that had been bought and paid for years ago. Bought and paid for with backbreaking work, sweat and a fair quantity of blood.
And then it had all come unraveled the night before last there in the barn. Nick had to know who this young stranger was. He wouldn’t rest until he knew. He had stole into the bunkhouse and ordered the young man up out of his bed. They moved away from the bunkhouse and into the barn with the horses. Nick had demanded answers and what he received was insolent backtalk.
The truth! All he wanted was the truth. “The truth, boy! What are you doing here?” A good pounding, Nick reasoned, would make the spy talk. “Who sent you here, boy? The Railroad?”
“No man sends me anywhere.”
“The boy could give the licks as well as take ‘em,” Nick grunted under his breath as he let go another right hook to the kid’s jaw. “Who then? Who are you? I want to hear.”
The boy had looked back at him with those expressive sapphire eyes. Even at the time, Nick wondered why the boy didn’t glare at him? No the look he received back from the young man was not one of anger but more a look of hurt. Hurt with determination, if there could be such a look. Still he just had to know who this young blond stranger was.
“I said who are you?” Nick snarled, determined to get it all out in the open even if he had to bust this kid’s teeth.
And then Nick’s Barkley’s world came crumbling down with four little words.
“Your father’s bastard son!”
Nick lay across his massive bed not even bothering to remove his boots. What’s the point? He wasn’t going to sleep. Too much to sort out.
While Nick’s heart urged compassion, understanding and acceptance, his mind sang a song of conspiracy, rejection and denial.
Father! How could you do this to me? How could you do this to mother? The family? Oh father! If this is true why didn’t you take responsibility for what you had done? Why would you let your son grow up in some rat-hole mining camp while the rest of your family lived in the lap of luxury? Why? Why?
‘Why’ kept do-si-do-ing in and out of Nick’s mind as other thoughts sashayed in to fuel the battle over heart and mind. He jumped up and started to pace the length of his large room and back, trying to make sense of it all.
The boy was tough. Nick had to give him that. Jarrod had tried to pay him off, but the kid wouldn’t have any part of it. He said in no uncertain terms that he was here to lay claim to what he was entitled to. “A name,” he had said. “A heritage. A part of it all. What’s mine!”
It was too much! Too much for Nick to swallow without a fight. He had to act and act quickly. “Alright boy, now you listen to me. I want you out of this house, off this place and out of this valley. And know this! If I ever lay eyes on you again, I’m going to finish what I started tonight.” For a split second, Nick reeled with relief when the lad had turned towards the door. His relief quickly turned to confusion when the youngster took the bribe money that Jarrod had given him and stuffed it in a half full glass of whiskey sitting on a table nearby. But then the kid walked towards the door. Why didn’t he take the money? He obviously was in want of hard cold cash. Why the kid’s clothes were so shabby and threadbare, at least that money would buy him a few new sets of duds and maybe a coat for the oncoming winter.
And as his hand reached to open the door, this boy, this young man claiming to be kin, looked straight at all of us. Me, Jarrod and Eugene. Suddenly he gave us this quirky little lopsided smile and then he turned and was gone. What did that smile mean?
There he went again. Nick’s heart was taking over. Why should I be concerned about how shabby that boy’s clothes were or if he would be warm come the cold weather? Why should I care?
Why father? Why?
And then this boy, this boy who called himself Heath showed up the next day to fight not FOR the Railroad but AGAINST it. Nick couldn’t believe his eyes and at first chose not to believe it when the young man vaulted off that Modoc pony of his and pulled out his worn Mexican rifle and joined the fighting right along side himself and his brothers to save one farmer’s house and fields from the grubby paws of the powerful Railroad.
Oh, there was killings a plenty that day, including the farmer, Sample, for whose property and home they were striving to protect. It wasn’t just him they were motivated to protect though. They were there for themselves as well. They knew the Railroad wouldn’t stop until they had it all. No matter how powerful the Barkleys were, the Railroad was still king. Unless we — the ranchers and farmers — stood together we could be next.
Nick had seen him sitting there all alone that day. He had seen him pull out a little pouch of tobacco and a paper to roll it in. He chose not to look too carefully but instead Nick comforted the widow of the fallen farmer. A woman whose responsibility would be for her children, who were still hiding in the cellar. She would grieve now but would have to be strong for her youngins, for she faced an uncertain future.
Nick didn’t see the strong, young hands shake uncontrollably as the blond man tried to roll his victory cigarette. Out of the corner of his eye, Nick saw his oldest brother, Jarrod, offer what looked like a cigar to the young man. He didn’t know why Jarrod would do this. He didn’t know why his brother would perform an act of solidarity towards this blond stranger. Nick pushed any possibility of kinship out of his mind.
Why father? Why?
It was quite late, way past suppertime when Nick arrived back at the ranch. He couldn’t believe his eyes when upon arriving at the barn to stable his horse Coco, that bedded in the next stall was that now familiar Modoc pony. Nick hurried with his tending and with long strides he entered into the house. Before one bellow of protest could issue forth from his mouth, his mother was there with her steady gray gaze that had the power of silencing even the hardiest of foes.
“Mother?” He wanted to know why the boy was here. Why hadn’t he just ridden out away from here?
“Nicholas,” she had said. “We have a lot of talking to do. We will discuss this all after you’ve had a chance to wash up. I trust at this late hour you have had your dinner? I will expect you downstairs and in the study in a half an hour. Do I make myself clear?”
Nick lay back on the bed with his fingers intertwined behind his head. What could he say? A family meeting. There was no such thing as saying ‘no’ to a family meeting. It wasn’t a request that had been issued. It was a command. Nick was a grown man. His own man. And yet he knew that at times, he was still under the authority of his mother. If a family meeting was being called, he’d best be there or face her wrath.
And so it was, the family gathered. He was there too, Heath. Blond, tall, rather handsome and a quiet determination to gain what was rightfully his. Into the night, the talking went. Well into the night. Heath, uniquely quiet and yet he said what he needed to say and left to go to his room that mother had told him was his earlier that evening, before I had gotten home from my cooling off period in town. And then in the end, there had been a family vote. Any time anything of significance was about to affect the family, we always voted on the best course. The vote was to accept Heath into the family as our brother or to reject him. Mother had the most to lose that night. We had been betrayed by father but none as much as she. Would she vote to send this orphan away? Send him to make his own way in the world? I was out-voted four to one. Mother somehow saw something in that boy that my mind was refusing to see. Oh, my heart wanted it but my mind was winning this round. He would stay. Stay and partake in everything that was reserved for family. Suddenly I had picked up a brother. Well, maybe not so suddenly. Jarrod had promised that he would contact the Pinkerton Agency to do a full background check on this Heath Thomson. Heath had been in the room when this condition of his staying was discussed and had agreed to it. Well, surely the boy wouldn’t have agreed to such an investigation if he had something to hide. Still.
Why father? Why?
Pink and orange fingers of light caressed Nick’s face as dawn peeked through the window in the eastern sky. Nick jolted awake, surprised that he had drifted off to sleep in the middle of his thinkin’.
“Mornin’ mother,” Nick said as he took his place at the breakfast table. He hadn’t really eaten that much the night before and was starving this morning. Thoughts about Heath were momentarily forgotten as he reached for food on the table, only to be stopped by the stern but firm words of his mother.
“I was under the impression, Nicholas, that food is not eaten until Grace.”
“Further that such is not spoken until the entire family has assembled.”
Nick could feel his face burning with anger. A force was building in him that just had to be let loose. He had to be heard. He would be heard.
Nick had his say that morning. Lots of words, strong words were said. Nick was on a roll and he would be heard out. And where was Heath anyway?
“And let’s make one thing very clear.” The crescendo in Nick’s voice was rising to a thunderous level. “This is a working ranch. And he pulls his weight. And that means up in the morning, every morning with the rest of the crowd at five o’clock and SWEAT! Just let him come to me just one time with a dry shirt on his back.”
Suddenly Heath was there. Didn’t that boy sleep? He looked as if he had already put in a full day’s work. Nick had a lot of things to learn about his little brother. One thing he learned that day was that Heath worked harder than any ranch hand he knew and without complaining. He wasn’t admitting brotherhood with this blond lad yet but Nick Barkley was impressed with this boy’s work ethic and soft easygoing manner. Maybe they could get along. Perhaps even more than get along. It wouldn’t be done in a day or a week or a month but maybe, just maybe Nick could sit back with an open mind and see how things progressed. He wasn’t ready to welcome the blond cowboy with open arms as his brother. Not yet. But maybe, just maybe he was ready to shift his listening from his mind to listening a little closer to his heart.